Just a short drive from Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose is the smaller city of Heredia. This historic town has middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, universities, parks, and a downtown with a real local feel. In this post, we’ll give you a guide to Heredia, including some historic sites, activities, good restaurants, and popular hotels.
Location & Landscape
Heredia is located only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) north of San Jose and just east of the SJO International Airport. Within the region known as the Central Valley, the area is densely populated but quickly turns rural as you travel into the surrounding hills.
The elevation of Heredia is around 1,150 meters (3,370 feet). With warm daytime temperatures and cooler nights, gardens flourish here. For this reason, Heredia is often called the city of flowers.
The first Spanish colonizers settled in Heredia around 1575, joining already established indigenous farmers. In 1712, a parish was formed with a temple constructed at the site where the downtown is today. Heredia was founded as a town in 1705 and declared a city in 1824.
Notable figures in Heredia’s history include Nicolas Ulloa Soto, a leader in one of Costa Rica’s civil wars, and Manuel Maria Gutierrez, who wrote the country’s national anthem.
Three former Costa Rican presidents came from Heredia: Alfredo Gonzalez Flores, Cleto Gonzalez Viquez, and Oscar Arias Sanchez
One of the country’s largest universities, the National University of Costa Rica, is also located in Heredia.
Heredia’s Central Park
At the heart of Heredia is the central park.
This public gathering space has mature trees, flower gardens, and antique stone walkways. A large, three-tiered fountain, imported from England in 1879, is the park’s focal point, along with the neighboring church (see below).
The park is dedicated to politician and merchant Nicolas Ulloa who promoted cultural development in Heredia. Like any city park, a few vendors and a lot of pigeons mingle with the locals who constantly come and go.
Church of the Immaculate Conception of Mary
Next to Heredia’s central park stands the beautiful Iglesia La Inmaculada Concepcion de Maria (Church of the Immaculate Conception of Mary).
Construction of the original building began in 1797, making it one of the oldest in Costa Rica. Work continued through the 1800s on the facade and twin bell towers. In 1879, the interior was remodeled to the style seen today.
For those interested, this site has much more history about the church, which is still in use.
Also next to the central park, just steps to the north, is one of Heredia’s historic symbols, El Fortin.
This quirky, tower-shaped fort, was built in 1876 by Fadrique Gutierrez Guardia, the governor of the province. Gutierrez designed the building himself, more as an artist than an architect.
Originally there were to be four similar structures built around the town but only one was ever funded.
Today, Costa Rica has no army, but in the 1800s, the country experienced war and conflict. The fort, with its many sniper holes, was designed to help protect the city if it were ever attacked.
Central Market (Mercado de Heredia)
To further experience Heredia’s local culture, a visit to the central market is key.
Located a few blocks south of the park, you will find almost 150 merchant stalls here.
Vendors sell everything from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and herbs, to meat, fish, leather goods, baskets, medicinal plants, and more. There is even a small stand that sells all the makings for tamales, a traditional food made from corn and wrapped in a banana leaf.
The market, inaugurated in 1889, has several small restaurants (called sodas). Narrow alleys connect all the vendors under one large roof.
Open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Sundays).
Oxigeno Human Playground
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the historic downtown is the nearby Oxigeno Mall.
This modern mall has around 200 storefronts with many international brands and restaurants.
With one of the world’s largest ETFE cushioned roofs (a lightweight, almost transparent material) and a large park and playground, there’s also lots of outdoor space to enjoy.
The pet-friendly mall has a climbing wall, many play structures for kids, and even a small zip-line, making it really unique.
Toucan Rescue Ranch
This wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center takes in injured or confiscated animals and gives them a second chance.
Toucan Rescue Ranch offers tours at their facility in the hills outside Heredia. Here, you can meet some of the wildlife that isn’t able to be released back into the wild.
Some of the animals you can see include monkeys, toucans, parrots, sloths, and owls. For much more about the tour and our experience visiting, read our post Toucan Rescue Ranch: Wildlife and Sloth Tour.
Monte de la Cruz
On the outskirts of Heredia up a mountain road is Monte de La Cruz. This recreational area has a few trails, gardens, playgrounds, open spaces, and a nice viewpoint overlooking San Jose.
A unique feature of the property is that you can rent small, covered picnic areas. Many locals visit to escape the city on weekends and holidays and spend the whole day.
Read our article, Monte de la Cruz: A Relaxing Locals’ Park in Heredia, for more info.
El Arca Botanical Garden & Restaurant
For a fun day in a tranquil setting, we loved our visit to El Arca Botanical Garden and restaurant.
On a guided or self-guided tour of the gardens, you can see, smell, and taste some of the 1,600 different plant species in their botanical collection.
We highly recommend staying for lunch so that you also can experience the elegant multi-course tasting menu. Many of the ingredients are pulled daily from the garden.
Read more with our post, El Arca Botanical Garden & Restaurant.
Heredia has a long history of coffee farming. In fact, Nicolas Ulloa (mentioned above) was once one of the country’s largest coffee merchants.
For a short history of coffee in Costa Rica, along with a demonstration and tasting, there is Cafe Britt. Cafe Britt is one of Costa Rica’s largest coffee roasters. They are located just north of downtown Heredia. Read our post for more about the experience.
Heredia has many restaurants, cafes, and bars. Here are some that we have enjoyed.
Food from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is unique and flavorful. At Caribbean Corner, in downtown Heredia, it is as authentic as it gets. Flavors of coconut, chiles, and lime touch dishes like pollo caribeno (Caribbean chicken), sopa rondon (rondon soup), and more.
Rock & Burger
This small burger restaurant serves up artisan burgers stuffed with cheese on homemade bread. Each burger at Rock & Burger is named after legendary rock n’ roll bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and more. There’s also a foosball table if you are up for a game.
Heladeria El Crucero
Probably the most popular ice-cream shop we have ever visited is Heladeria El Crucero. Customers here line up on afternoons and weekends for heaping portions of ice cream with special toppings like marshmallow sauce. Located a block north of the central park.
Pizzeria Rosso di Roma
For crispy wood-fired pizza, focaccia, and calzones, head to Pizzeria Rosso di Roma. This newer restaurant has quickly made a name for itself. The nicely decorated interior is cozy and comfortable. They sometimes have live music. Take-out is also available.
Get to this bakery early for sweet treats and fresh baked breads because they sell out fast. Passiflory bakes everything from traditional sourdough or wheat to interesting Japanese shokunin bread, bagels, and croissants. For sweets, we loved the chocolate eclairs and fruit tarts. We’ve driven out of our way to visit Passiflory more than once!
Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Farm and Inn
Finca Rosa Blanca is a well-known hotel and coffee farm outside Heredia. It sits on a 30-acre property in the lush hills north of the city. The 14 villas and suites are well appointed and incorporate traditional Costa Rican wood and artwork. There is a farm-to-table restaurant and organic coffee tour on site. Finca Rosa Blanca has attained a sustainability certification in Costa Rica, $225-400+/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
The highlight of a stay at Hotel Bougainvillea is the property’s 10-acre botanical garden with lush flowers and interesting trees. This upscale hotel is known for good service and a comfortable atmosphere. An on-site restaurant is available. $120-190/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Terrazas de Golf
A short distance west of Heredia is Hotel Terrazas de Golf. Overlooking a quiet golf course and close to the airport, this is a peaceful bed and breakfast with friendly, family-run staff. We have always enjoyed our stays.
Our readers get a special discount at Hotel Terrazas de Golf. Email us at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com with your name, number of people, dates, and preferred room type (see room types here). We’ll then connect you with the hotel, which will process your reservation at 10% off.
A visit to Heredia offers a look back in history, a glimpse of today’s culture, and some fun activities as well. We recommend it to anyone looking to experience a true locals’ city in Costa Rica.
Have a question about visiting Heredia? Have you been? Leave a comment below.
Looking for more information to help plan your trip. Check out these articles:
How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose, Costa Rica – If you are looking to explore the downtown’s museums and National Theater, this post is for you.
Costa Rica Children’s Museum – Museo de Los Ninos – Not far from Heredia, this museum is inside a castle-like building. The museum is fun for kids and also shares some of Costa Rica’s history and culture.
The Truth About Visiting Poas Volcano – Is a visit to this famous volcano worth it? In this post we share our thoughts and experiences.